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October 20, 2011

Week 8 preview in the Mountain West

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Air Force once again has one of the nation's most potent rushing attacks.

New Mexico at TCU, 2 p.m.
Air Force at Boise State, 3:30 p.m.
Colorado State at UTEP, 8 p.m.
If only the Falcons were just as good at stopping the run.

Air Force ranks third in the nation in rushing, but the Falcons also are giving up 229.5 rushing yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry. New Mexico is the only FBS program allowing more rushing yards per game.

The poor run defense explains why Air Force is 3-3 at the midpoint of a season that began with great expectations. The road doesn't get any easier Saturday against unbeaten Boise State. The Broncos' Doug Martin rushed for 200 yards last week in a 63-13 rout of Colorado State.

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"I think you look at who we've played, especially here over the last three weeks," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "We've played some pretty good football teams. If you have the right maturity, you're actually able to learn some pretty valuable lessons."

Mountain West rushing leader Ronnie Hillman ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns last week in San Diego State's 41-27 victory over Air Force. One week earlier, the Falcons gave up 266 rushing yards in a 59-33 loss to Notre Dame. The week before the Notre Dame game, Air Force eked out a 35-34 overtime victory over Navy, which has the nation's fourth-ranked rushing attack.

Injuries also have played a role in the Falcons' struggles. Knee injuries have sidelined end Zach Payne and nose tackle Ryan Gardner. End Ben Kopacka sat out Air Force's past two games with a shoulder injury. The injuries have forced freshman Nick Fitzgerald into the starting lineup at end.

This certainly isn't a good time for Air Force to enter a game at less than full strength. Boise State boasts a veteran offensive line opening up holes for one of the nation's hottest running backs. After averaging just 3.2 yards per carry in his first three games, Martin has rushed for 420 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 7.4 yards per attempt over his past three games.

"It starts with our o-line," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "They're doing a better job of blocking things a little bit cleaner. If Doug gets a little space, he's going to make some things happen. ... He runs very, very hard. If you just give him space to get things started, he's going to do some things."

Air Force won at least eight games in each of Calhoun's first four seasons on the job, but that streak could end this season if the Falcons don't upgrade their run defense. They already have a 0-2 conference record for the first time since dropping their first two Western Athletic Conference games in 1994.

Although the Falcons' schedule gets much easier after the Boise State game, they don't want to dig themselves into an even deeper hole.

"We're always a team that wanted to play better and better football as the season progressed," Calhoun said. "This team has a chance to do that."

The improvement must start right now.

Best matchup: New Mexico WRs Deon Long and Ty Kirk vs. TCU CBs Greg McCoy and Jason Verrett. Long has emerged as one of the lone bright spots in New Mexico's dreadful season. Long, a transfer from West Virginia, leads the Conference in receiving and has caught 31 passes for 580 yards and three touchdowns this season, though he was held to one catch for 12 yards in last Saturday's 49-7 loss to Nevada. Kirk hasn't reached the end zone, but he has caught 41 passes for 353 yards. Kirk has 30 receptions over his last three games. Long and Kirk will test a TCU team that ranks 87th nationally in pass efficiency defense, though that ranking may be a little misleading. TCU struggled mightily against Baylor's Robert Griffin and SMU's J.J. McDermott, but the Frogs have played solid pass defense otherwise. In its 27-14 victory over San Diego State two weeks ago, TCU picked off three Ryan Lindley passes.

Player on the spot: Colorado State DE Nordly Capi. The most surprising player in the conference was held without a sack for the first time this season last Saturday against Boise State. Without Capi providing a pass rush, Colorado State allowed Boise State to set a school single-game record with 742 total yards in a 63-13 blowout. The one-sided loss showed that Colorado State's defense isn't that good when it isn't applying a pass rush. The Rams need Capi to make an impact Saturday against UTEP, which has allowed 21 sacks this season. Only five FBS programs (Kent State, Louisville, Akron, UNLV and Pittsburgh) are allowing more sacks per game than UTEP.

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Keep an eye on: The turnover situation in the Air Force-Boise State game. Air Force typically has thrived on takeaways during Calhoun's five-year coaching tenure, but the Falcons have 13 giveaways and only seven takeaways this season to rank 104th nationally in turnover margin. Boise State is tied for fifth nationally in turnover margin with 15 takeaways and six giveaways. Air Force won't have a chance of pulling the upset Saturday unless it wins the turnover battle.

Numbers game: Boise State's 57-7 rout of Fresno State on Oct. 7 and 63-13 blowout of Colorado State last week marks the first time in school history that the Broncos have won back-to-back games by at least 50 points.

What they're saying

"I'm just trying to create stability - great stability - for our membership, so we're not talking about membership issues [all the time]. The status quo of a Mountain West with a 10-team football league to our membership was not acceptable, and we're looking at a new dynamic." - Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, upon announcing a football-only merger with Conference USA that could take effect as early as next season

"[Defensive end] Shea McClellin, he doesn't ever surprise me whatever happens out there. You almost just expect something good's going to happen when he's out there." - Boise State coach Chris Petersen, to the Idaho Press-Tribune. McClellin picked off a pass and blocked an extra-point attempt against Colorado State last week

"This is the first time we've dropped two in a row all season. Earlier, when we lost, we bounced right back. Hopefully, we can bounce right back now and string together a couple wins. We need this game, there's no question." - Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild, to The (Fort Collins) Coloradoan

"I had 100? A win would be better." - UNLV RB Dionza Bradford, to the Las Vegas Review-Journal after learning he had rushed for 104 yards in the Rebels' 41-14 loss to Wyoming. Bradford was making his first career start in place of Tim Cornett, who rushed for 25 yards on eight carries while being slowed by a hip injury

"He dipped his shoulder, ran hard and held on to the ball, which I don't think he did the last game. In the last game, he would have been jumping around and would have got pulled to the ground." - San Diego State coach Rocky Long, to The San Diego Union-Tribune after Ronnie Hillman's 172-yard performance against Air Force last week. Hillman had gained just 55 yards on 20 carries in a loss to TCU a week earlier

"We just have to find a way to get a spark at the beginning. It's hard to play catch-up when you aren't playing with a whole lot of confidence." - New Mexico interim coach George Barlow, to www.golobos.com. The winless Lobos have been outscored 84-10 in the first quarter this season

Poll watch: Boise State was fifth in the initial BCS standings. LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were ahead of Boise State. The Broncos were ahead of unbeaten teams Wisconsin, Clemson, Stanford and Kansas State. Of course, all those teams could move ahead of Boise State if they stay unbeaten because of their tougher schedules. No other Mountain West team was included in the initial BCS rankings.

Etc.: Air Force QB Tim Jefferson, a fourth-year starter, set career-highs last week in completions (22), pass attempts (36) and passing yards (224) in the loss to San Diego State. Jefferson has attempted 60 passes in the past two weeks after throwing a total of 47 passes in his first four games this season. ... Boise State has won 34 consecutive home games. The only FBS program with a longer home winning streak is Oklahoma, which has won 39 straight at home. ... The injuries that have ravaged Colorado State's defense this season now are carrying over to the offense. OT Paul Madsen has a sprained knee that will sideline him a substantial period of time, though the Rams are hoping the preseason first-team All-MWC selection can return before the end of the season. The Rams already are playing without OT Joe Caprioglio, a starter who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Colorado. The Rams likely will head into the UTEP game with redshirt freshmen Mason Hathaway and Ty Sambrailo as their starting tackles. ... Colorado State LB Mike Orakpo is questionable for the UTEP game after sustaining a concussion last week. Orakpo has a team-leading 47 tackles. ... UNLV has lost five of its first six games, but the Rebels at least have reason to feel optimistic about the future of their running game. Bradford rushed for 104 yards in his first career start last week, while Cornett has run for 300 yards and has gained 5.4 yards per carry despite struggling with injuries. Cornett is a sophomore and Bradford's a true freshman. ... New Mexico LB Carmen Messina has 366 career tackles. The only active FBS players with more tackles are Boston College's Luke Kuechly (440), Houston's Marcus McGraw (424), Oklahoma's Travis Lewis (402) and Utah State's Bobby Wagner (367). Wyoming DE Gabe Knapton is ninth on the list with 325 tackles, while injured Colorado State LB Mychal Sisson is 10th with 303. ... San Diego State CB Leon McFadden is garnering so much respect that it's turning teammate Larry Parker into a star. With teams throwing away from McFadden as much as possible, Parker has intercepted a pass in four consecutive games. He leads the MWC and ranks second nationally with five interceptions this season. The MWC single-season record of seven interceptions is shared by UNLV's Kevin Thomas (2001), Utah's Eric Weddle (2006) and Air Force's Anthony Wright (2009). ... San Diego State TE Gavin Escobar broke his hand last week against Air Force and will miss three to four weeks. ... The TCU-New Mexico game will pit family members against each other, as TCU DE Ross Forrest and New Mexico DB Bubba Forrest are cousins. Ross Forrest's father, Mike, played linebacker for the Lobos in the late 1970s and was named the team's most valuable player in 1979.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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